Petition Calls For Commissioner’s Job

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY – A petition has started to circulate around Oswego County, calling for the commissioner of the Oswego County Department of Social Services to step down or be removed from her position.

The petition was launched in response to the department’s handling of the Erin Maxwell case.

Eleven-year-old Erin died during the early morning hours of Aug. 30 from injuries she sustained in her Palermo home Aug. 29. The Onondaga County Medical Examiner ruled Erin’s death a homicide; the result of asphyxia with sexual trauma listed as a contributing factor.

Last week, Erin’s step-brother, 27-year-old Alan Jones was charged with second-degree murder in the death of the child. Her father, Lindsey Maxwell, and step-mother, Lynn Maxwell, were also arrested and each charged with six counts of endangering the welfare of a child.

Colleen Scott, a Granby resident who maintains a Web site under the title of “Justice for Erin,” says while the arrests were a start in delivering justice for the child, it is time for the county to take responsibility for not removing Erin from the home when it had the chance.

Scott, who works with children, said that she has been significantly affected by Erin’s case.

“I didn’t know her but the whole thing broke by heart,” Scott said. “I couldn’t stop thinking about her.”

As more information began to circulate, Scott said the community’s reaction prompted her to take action beyond her Web site.

The department released a report two weeks ago, detailing three separate investigations that were conducted at the Maxwell home from 2003-2006. In each case, the report said that the investigations were closed after determining that Erin was safe.

“In no way, shape or form do I hold DSS responsible for Erin’s murder,” Scott said. “I hold the department responsible for not removing her from the home. They are really two separate issues. No one could have known that this would happen to her.”

Scott pointed out that the investigation in 2006 determined that the child’s “housing fails to meet minimum standards.” The worker determined that Erin was not being negatively affected, however. The case was indicated and closed.

In all three investigations, workers found live poultry kept in cages inside the home. In the first investigation, the allegation of “Inadequate Guardianship” was indicated because geese were kept inside the home.

“How many times did DSS have to tell them to remove chickens from the home because it is a safety concern?” Scott said. “Every time they started a new investigation, there were chickens inside again.”

Scott noted that DSS Commissioner Frances Lanigan’s response to the Maxwell case prompted the petition.

“Her attitude from the beginning has been that DSS did nothing wrong,” Scott said. “She is a public official and serves at the pleasure of the Legislature. Our opinion is that she does not want to accept any responsibility for her department allowing Erin to stay in those conditions. … I find it hard to believe that our restrictions are so loose that what she lived in was acceptable.”

The petition, which started to circulate Sunday, reads:

“To The Legislature of Oswego County,

“We the residents of Oswego County, want to inform you that, we no longer feel, that Frances Lanigan, is fulfilling her duties as Commissioner of the Oswego County Department of Social Services. Instead of her saying that her department did not handle the Erin Maxwell case effectively, she continues to state that DSS, did everything they could to ensure the safety and well being of Erin. This is contrary to overwhelming evidence that has been released to the public by credible witnesses.

“We the undersigned, are demanding her resignation or removal immediately.”

Scott pointed out that both Jackie Siver, who says she made a report to the State Central Register about the conditions in the Maxwell home, and Bill Salmonsen, who says he tried to make a report earlier this year, tried to help.

Salmonsen told News10Now that his car broke down in front of the Maxwell’s house in April. The following day, Salmonsen said he called DSS to report the conditions that Erin was living in but was told that the department couldn’t tell people how to live before the person on the other end of the line hung up.

“I believe (Lanigan) should be having a meeting to find out who he talked to,” Scott said. “I think it is likely that the wrong person answered the phone that day. … Instead, anything that people bring up, she says, ‘I don’t know about that.’

“We feel very strongly that she should lose her job,” Scott added. “The attitude in a department comes from the top. … Don’t just defend your department; admit that someone didn’t do what was right and say that you are going to get to the bottom of it.”

Oswego County Administrator Philip Church said that while Scott and others have every right to present a petition, it is not likely going to cost Lanigan her job.

“There are no discussions going on about the commissioner’s job,” Church said. “She has responded professionally to this situation and done more than what was expected to get to the bottom of what happened.

“I understand people wanting to voice their frustrations through a petition,” Church said. “That’s their right. But we are not going to lop heads to make people feel better.”

Though not unanimously, Lanigan was reappointed to a new five-year term earlier this year with overwhelming support of the Legislature. Church said that there is “a lot to look at” before there would be any decision at the county level.

“Ending someone’s career to make people feel better is not the solution,” he said. “We want to get to the bottom of what went wrong. … Anyone would want to be treated fairly. But we have to make decisions based on fact.”

Church explained, too, that as the administrative head of the agency, there are many people below Lanigan who directly oversee the division of child protective services, support collection and the like.

“There is a whole organizational tree of people between CPS workers and the commissioner,” Church said. “It is possible that Fran never saw this case herself. The department investigates thousands of cases.”

Church noted that while the Maxwell case may have never come across Lanigan’s desk before Erin‘s death, the three previous reports would have been reviewed by supervisors in the departmental chain of command and ultimately reported to the state.

Church said that the county is awaiting the results of the state review of the Maxwell files and waiting to find if Cornell agrees to conduct a review of the Department of Social Services’ policies and procedures.

“There has to be a thorough review… to find out what may have been done differently and find out if the rules need improvement,” he said.

“We would ask people to recognize that any responsible government or employer has to make decisions on fact and evidence; not on rash judgment or a need for vengeance,” he said.

Scott maintains that she believes there is more than sufficient evidence to suggest that DSS failed Erin Maxwell.

“Our opinions do matter,” Scott added. “Frances serves at the pleasure of the Legislature. We elect legislators and they appointed her. Our opinions have to be heard.”